The Thames at Runnymede © NTPL

Walking Into History

6th August 2010

Its name will live on forever as the place where the Magna Carta was agreed by King John and the English barons in 1215. Today it has a generous portion of monuments that draw inspiration from that fabled event – and others.

Jack Watkins visits the legendary fields of Runnymede.

At Runnymede, at Runnymede
What say the reeds at Runnymede?…
They keep the sleeping Thames awake
With tales of John at Runnymede…

…so proclaimed Rudyard Kipling’s poem of 1911, but one thing that neither the reeds – nor anyone else for that matter – can tell you is exactly where it was, on these lush, well-watered Thames-side meadows, that the royal seal of King John was placed on the Magna Carta Libertatum before a fuming audience of barons in the summer of 1215.

Was it near Langham Pond with its waving fronds of purple loosestrife and water lilies, its hollowed-out hawthorns and willows? Or under an ancestor of the English oaks that, ageing but not yet ancient, stand sentinel-like on the slopes below Cooper’s Hill Woods? (One place it certainly wasn’t was on the so-called Magna Carta Island, artificially created by the crafty landowner in 1834, cutting a narrow channel into the banks of the Thames, so that they could charge gullible Victorian day-trippers a penny for access). Such dreamy speculations about precise location add greatly to the charm of a visit to this historic place just outside Egham, and not far from Windsor.

In the document, the king describes the charter as ‘given by our hand in the meadow which is called Runnymede, between Windsor and Staines’. Today, the name Runnymede refers to 188 acres of meadow bequeathed to the National Trust in 1938, plus 110 acres of woody slopes added by the district council in 1963. Much of the area is considered a precious haven for wildlife, so close to urban settlements, as well as being a place of memorials inspired by the ideals of personal liberty and justice enshrined in the Magna Carta.

There is, of course, no memorial to King John, whose misfortune it has been to go down in the annals as quite the worst monarch we have ever had. In the natural way of the contrarian, this itself would be enough to stimulate a touch of sympathy and curiosity, even if one hadn’t grown up with AA Milne’s humorous poem about the wretched royal whose only Christmas cards were those he sent himself, whose Christmas list (‘a big red India-rubber ball’) went unfulfilled year after year, and who spent his afternoons alone with no-one calling for tea. Who could not feel a twinge of sympathy?

Reluctantly, however, it has to be conceded that John was a thoroughly bad lad. Humiliatingly dubbed ‘Softsword’ for his military incompetence, among a host of other failings, he squandered his father Henry II’s once extensive territories in France. His levying of punitive taxes to fund campaigns to win them back enraged the barons because he did so without, as was the custom, seeking their consent. Magna Carta was an attempt to put an end to royal abuse of power, and to subject the king to the laws of the land for the first time in English history.

Of course – still without a written constitution eight centuries later – Britain doesn’t go in for grandiose banner-waving or proclamations about liberty or freedom. Mention such words and we’ll stick our hands in our pockets, shuffle about awkwardly and mumble that we prefer to leave such matters to the French and the Americans while we ‘just get on with it’… and so at Runnymede, you may feel momentarily confused, as if you’ve suddenly been whisked over to an unexpectedly leafy Washington DC…

The Magna Carta Memorial

A Greek temple, complete with star-spangled dome – originally planted ostentatiously in the centre of the meads, but now more retiringly set back behind a hedge – was erected by the American Bar Association as a memorial to the great charter over fifty years ago. A little further on we have the Kennedy Memorial, a Portland stone slab engraved with JKF’s inauguration speech, reached by a series of granite slabs – one for each year of his life – and located on ground ceded to the citizens of the US by the Queen in1964.

In amongst the hedgerow are some youngish looking trees, one of which has a plaque. It’s an English oak alright, but planted with soil brought from Jamestown, Virginia in 1987, to commemorate the bi-centenary of the signing of the US constitution ‘and to acknowledge that its ideals of liberty and justice trace their lineage to the Magna Carta’.

The Lutyens-designed lodges © NTPL

Down by the Old Windsor Road, that most English of architects Edwin Luytens was responsible for the design of the two lodges with their characteristically low-pitched roofs and over-sized chimney stacks. They now serve respectively as the – oh yes – Magna Carta Tea Room, and art gallery. From here you can walk back along the river, though you may find the first stretch ruined by the least appealing sort of tourists, who think it’s a good idea to draw up the car or camper van onto the grass, pull out the deckchairs and sit staring at the water – even though the river is mill-pond still with barely so much as a midge twitching – thus blocking out the ‘view’ for anyone else. Better to completely ignore them and keep walking and then, at the Lily Pond, cross the road at the ‘Air Forces Memorial’ signpost, back onto the meadows.

You can walk straight ahead and climb the hill through the woods to a place of great peace and tranquility: the Air Forces Memorial, commemorating the 20,000 or so airmen and women who died in World War Two and who have no known grave. The building itself takes the form of cloisters – on the walls of which the names of the dead are recorded – around an immaculately maintained lawn, and a shrine or tower, from the top of which is a view across seven counties. The messages left by relatives and old comrades are, in their understated way, very moving.

Were King John and his contemporaries to return now, though, the landscape they would find most familiar would surely be the delightful, undulating Langham Meadow. This is still managed by the National Trust as a traditional hay meadow, and in spring and summer before it is cut, is alive with buttercups, ox-eye daisy and knapweed. They even have skylarks here, their song a bitter rebuke to the tedious drone of the passenger aircraft flying in and out of Heathrow. It’s just about as near as you’ll get to ‘Old England’ this close in to London. So traditional, in fact, that the king, after he’d finished with the tiresome business of the Magna Carta, would have been able to relax and have a game with his big, red India-rubber ball…

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